Arizona-UCLA game to reunite high school stars

When the Arizona football team steps onto the field at the Rose Bowl tomorrow, a reunion of quarterbacks will take place.

UCLA's Ryan Fien and Arizona freshman Keith Smith once again will face each other from opposite sides of the field. Fien, a junior, will not start but likely will play a good deal of the game. Smith barring a disaster will not. But on a cool October night in 1991, it was a whole different ball game.

Fien was the All-Everything senior quarterback at Royal High School in Simi Valley, Calif., and Smith was the sophomore with unlimited potential at Newbury Park (Calif.) High School, the same school that produced former UCLA quarterback Wayne Cook and current Arizona lineman Bryan Hand.

Both schools compete in the Marmonte League, widely considered to be one of the toughest in Southern California. In fact, seven of the Pacific 10 Conference schools boast at least one player from the league.

Royal head coach Gene Ubelhardt and his team entered the game against Newbury Park undefeated, and Ubelhardt knew that if Royal was going to win its first Marmonte League title, 1991 was the year.

On the other hand, George Hurley, the Newbury Park head coach, was looking to the future. Smith and his favorite target, Leodes Van Buren, were both sophomores, but they played like seniors.

Smith passed for 2,432 yards in '91, but it was Fien who was quarterback of the hour, and on the night the two schools met, he showed why.

Fien was nothing short of brilliant, completing 18-of-22 passes for 210 yards to lead Royal to a 35-7 victory. He threw three touchdowns to pull himself closer to the Ventura County record of 52, which he later tied.

He passed for 1,710 yards, 23 touchdowns and just three interceptions that year on his way to All-State second team and an All-America honorable mention.

The Royal defense however, made it a night Smith would probably just as soon forget. The Highlander defensive line, anchored by current Pacific lineman Jason Evans, sacked Smith six times and allowed him only one touchdown pass.

Wildcat fans might remember Evans' name from this season's opening game. Evans had four tackles and sacked UA quarterback Dan White for a four-yard loss in Arizona's 41-9 rout of the Tigers.

Royal went on to have an undefeated season and won its first league crown. The Highlanders were the league's first-ever unbeaten champion. But what Royal could not do was win its first-ever playoff game. Rio Mesa (Camarillo, Calif.) High School upset the No. 1-seeded Highlanders 10-7.

The next year, Smith avenged the loss, beating the Fien-less Royal team 14-9. During Smith's senior season, Newbury Park became the second undefeated league champ, but this time, Smith took the Panthers all the way, winning the California Interscholastic Federation Division II title. One week later Smith and Van Buren were featured in Sport Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" section. He is currently ranked second in the nation in high school career passing yards.

It should be noted that this reunion might never have happened. Fien originally gave a verbal commitment to the University of Texas before a visit from UCLA offensive coordinator Homer Smith helped change Fien's mind. Smith took a different route to the reunion. He committed to Arizona, but was drafted by the Detroit Tigers. He spent a year in the organization before working out of his contract and coming back to Tucson.

They may not ever go head-to-head again, but they'll always have 1991.

Believe it, those were the days.

Craig Degel is a journalism sophomore and a sports reporter for the Wildcat.

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